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18 June 2001

Nice office, shame about the job

Andrew Lappin, a former insider, warns John Prescott that his new department is just a dumping groun

By Andrew Lappin

When John Prescott entered his new ministerial home at the Cabinet Office a few days ago, an organogram will have been placed in front of him. All pastel shades and clean lines, and put together at no small cost, it purportedly explains where everyone fits into the department. Pictures of the directors of this unit and that task force smile out of the maze. Like his predecessors, Prescott will have been left none the wiser, and by now he will be asking what on earth he has got himself into. He will have noted the suspicious blank spots on the organogram, where the department has lost out in reshuffle skirmishes: the drugs unit thrown to the wolves at the Home Office; new units for performance and delivery resting firmly under No 10’s wing. We will have to wait for news of further casualties, but they will come – the People’s Panel airbrushed, perhaps, and the Better Government for Older People programme pensioned off.

By now, in the minister’s inner sanctum, the dartboard favoured by the previous occupant, Mo Mowlam, will have been replaced by Prescott’s bust of Oliver Cromwell. There will be no room for the blow-up doll that once teetered on the mantelpiece of Mowlam’s private secretaries’ office, the inflatable figurehead of a becalmed ship of state.

But the rearrangements do not stop there. For the first time, the minister in charge of the Cabinet Office is to vacate the Cabinet Office entirely. He will set up shop next door in Dover House, home to the Scotland Office but with much space left empty by devolution to the Holyrood parliament.

It is hard not to read something into this sideways move. In this job at the “heart of government”, it soon becomes obvious to any minister that the beat goes on elsewhere. And while the power lies tantalisingly close – two flights down, in fact, in the domain of the Cabinet Secretary, Richard Wilson, with No 10 an interconnecting door away – it remains out of reach.

Permanently enshadowed by a radiant Downing Street, the Cabinet Office can be a handy dumping ground for unpopular initiatives, dying policies, and ministers who don’t fit in easily elsewhere. For the politicians who make this dustbin their home, it is almost invariably their last stop, a kind of ministerial purgatory before their blessed release. They soon find that the place is just a front, designed to make sure that Wilson’s work continues away from the public glare. Prescott, like David Clark, Jack Cunningham and Mowlam before him, will not get a look-in when it comes to the great engine room of the Civil Service, the Cabinet secretariats. These magnificent seven – economic and domestic, defence and overseas, European, intelligence and security, constitution, central, and ceremonial – are the proud preserve of Wilson alone, through which he keeps tabs on ministers, departments and committees. The secretariats are kept under wraps, and they’re the only bits that are any good.

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If Prescott is curious, he will come across a lot of junk in the cupboards, the little bits of policy responsibility tacked on to the portfolio as successive ministers and their baggage have come and gone. There was a bit of science once. Efficiency for a while as well. Drugs come and go. Freedom of information, which did for Clark, has wandered off to the Lord Chancellor, via the Home Office. Responsibility for Kyoto has made the cut this time, together with a few backwaters of regional governance.

With no money and less clout, the Cabinet Office minister, supposedly at the centre, is always on the sidelines. The Home Office and the Department of Health have multimillion-pound allocations for drugs policy. Why should they have listened to what Cunningham had to say in his “coordinating” capacity? And with effective cross-departmental action on rough sleeping, teenage pregnancy and the problems of poor neighbourhoods, should it surprise that the Social Exclusion Unit bridled at Mowlam’s role in “monitoring” progress?

“Change, change, why do we need change? Things are quite bad enough as they are.” Wilson is fond of quoting Lord Salisbury to Queen Victoria. Brought in three years ago as the moderniser with old-school ties, he is the friendly face of reform. Now he and Prescott are supposed to lead what is meant to be a prime minister’s department in all but name, retaining the pretence of the Cabinet Office just in case things foul up. Whitehall insiders (newspaper code for civil servants) have already sounded the alarm. They fear that concentration on delivery and communication will undermine Civil Service impartiality, and send Messrs Northcote and Trevelyan spinning in their graves, 150 years after they laid down the rules. Garbagic, as Alastair Campbell might say. It’s a tired, old argument which assumes that bureaucratic integrity and a government’s desire for clarity do not mix.

While other departments have moved on and got a life, it has been the Cabinet Office’s tragic function to be the keeper of the flame, to conserve the pure essence of Whitehall, circa the age of the bowler hat. Its reputation remains high – in its own estimation, at least. Unworried by anything so artisanal as product, so managerialist as delivery, for decades it has presided quietly over little but its own gentle decline. The place is avowedly, emphatically, less than the sum of its parts. And it gets to you in the end. Having spent three of the past four years there, I no longer care what happens to it. The startling thing is how few of those who work there do, either.

You come close to an answer if you accept, somewhat cynically, that “enforcement” and “coordination” translate as chairing committees while the decisions are made elsewhere. And the officials will continue to officiate, offering advice on project management (safe in the knowledge that they have few projects to manage themselves) and drafting procedural guidelines for departments that actually have a direction to go in and things to do. It comes dangerously close to activity for the sake of it. Consultation documents on how best government should consult take navel-gazing into new and unchartered waters, and with awful, awful grammar.

“It is an inevitable defect,” wrote Walter Bagehot in 1866, “that bureaucrats will care more for routine than results . . . [imagining] the elaborate machinery of which they form a part, and from which they derive their dignity, to be a grand and achieved result, not a working and changeable instrument.” In a world that is fast breaking loose from the bureaucratic confines with which Whitehall likes to think it tidies our lives, Wilson and Blair are presented with as big an organisational challenge as the reforms that answered, albeit only in part, the demands of empire and an aspirant middle class in the mid-19th century. Civil Service reform has always been a messy business, and if the Cabinet Office is to have any role, perhaps it can at least be a cleaner vacuum than it has proved to date.

Andrew Lappin is a former adviser to the Minister for the Cabinet Office

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